May I have this sport dance?

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May I have this sport dance?

At first sight, they don't seem much different from other young people in Seoul. Lee Hyun-woo likes to teasingly tug at Paek Soo-mi's hair. She likes to sit back and explain to him the symbolism in the hot new "Lord of the Rings" movie, "The Two Towers."

But when the music is turned on at the Sherry Kwon Sport Dancing School, in Sadang, southern Seoul, the two teens become something special. Hyun-woo straightens his shoulders and holds his head high. Soo-mi arches her back and stretches out her hands to hold her partner. Together, they glide effortlessly across the shiny, wooden dance floor.

"At first it was difficult to maintain proper posture while dancing," says Hyun-woo, 17. "But after a while you get used to it and now it comes naturally."

Soo-mi, 15, nods. "It was especially painful when I first started sport dancing. Your posture has to be so straight and perfect, and mine was not."

It's not typical for a couple of teenagers to be involved in this offshoot of ballroom dancing. But Hyun-woo and Soo-mi are no typical teens -- or dancers. They're champions. The couple won the amateur championship at the fifth Super Korea Cup International Sport Dancing Competition, held in October in Seoul, and they were the first runners-up in the amateur category at the Merlion International Dance Sport Championships at Singapore in November. In May, they'll compete in the amateur and under-21 divisions at the Blackpool Dance Festival in Britain, considered the world championships.

Sport dancing involves a dazzling array of quick, shuffling steps, done while the upper body is held perfectly still. The form is divided into two categories -- modern dance and Latin American dance. Modern dance includes such standards as waltz, tango, quickstep, fox-trot. Latin American dance features rhumba, cha-cha, samba and jive.

Later this year, Hyun-woo and Soo-mi will go to Australia for a month of special training. They'll be accompanied by Sherry Kwon, who runs the dance school and is Hyun-woo's aunt. Ms. Kwon serves as the couple's instructor in Korea.

Ms. Kwon was a professional sport dancer and a member of the Korean national team in 1987. She's really big on the potential of her young charges, and believes they will have long and star-studded careers.

"I have high hopes for my nephew," she says, "and I truly feel he has everything that is needed to become a champion."

In April 1995, sport dancing gained provisional approval by the International Olympic Committee as an event. At the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, sport dancing was an exhibition event. It's expected to be adopted as a regular event at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

Hyun-woo and Soo-mi have been dancing together for only a year. Before that, they each had other partners. They started learning when they were in elementary school. Soo-mi had always loved dancing, but Hyun-woo had to be dragged into the world of sequins, tuxedos and leather-soled shoes by his aunt when he was in his fifth year of elementary school. "I had to lure him with candies and cookies to come to my dance school," Ms. Kwon says.

"I really hated to dance," he remembers, "but my aunt kept after me, bribing me to practice only once every week."

As time went by, Hyun-woo would skip classes or cut his lessons short, so his aunt had to keep raising the ante.

"Now I had to give him comic books," she says. "Later I had to buy him computers and promise to show him the world outside of Korea."

Despite Hyun-woo's reluctance, Ms. Kwon never doubted her belief that her nephew would one day become one of the top-ranked sport dancers. Ms. Kwon had noticed Hyun-woo's potential when he was just a baby. "Unlike the other children in his family, Hyun-woo had the long legs that are essential for a sport dancer, and he had the other skills needed to become a good dancer, such as being able to move his body rhythmically to the music."

Today, Hyun-woo practices at least five hours a day. When Soo-mi isn't around, he shadow dances solo, checking his posture in the school's large mirrors.

"I started to enjoy dancing after I went to a competition in my last year of middle school," he says. But what really sparked his interest in dancing was a video of a British couple, Luca and Lorraine Baricchi, who have been world champions for much of the past decade.

"Hyun-woo nicknamed himself 'Luca,'" Soo-mi says with a giggle.

Inspired the Baricchis' grace and greatness, Hyun-woo decided that sport dancing was his destiny.

It wasn't easy for the young man to pursue his dream; in Korea as in many places, dancing while all dressed up in fancy clothes is not considered the most macho of activities for a young man. Moreover, many Koreans have long thought of social dancing as a sleazy pursuit full of swindlers, gigolos, seducers and adulterers -- good looking young men with glittering white teeth who can make upright and moral young women compromise their virtue, then extort all the money out of them that they can.

In school, some of Hyun-woo's buddies still joke around, asking if he is going after married women, and performing mocking dance parodies.

"I usually just smile at them," Hyun-woo says.

In recent years, the perception of dancing as a sport has improved enormously. A lot of married couples sign up for sport dancing classes. Even public and private schools have added sport dancing as an extracurricular activity. Ms. Kwon is a sport dance professor at Kyonggi University and an instructor at Yongin University. Many office workers across Korea have organized sport dancing clubs.

"We became the most popular people during my school festival last October when we danced in front of the entire student body," Soo-mi says. "We were even in the school newspaper."

Hyun-woo gives a faint, approving smile, but saddens when he says there no fan clubs.

Soo-mi was actually a rival of Hyun-woo's before the two joined forces. Back then, she never thought she would turn professional or even become serious about sport dancing.

"I was actually doing gymnastics, but when I was in sixth grade I started to learn sport dancing in a group class," she says. It was Soo-mi's mother who suggested that she take up the new activity. "I can't say when, but I started to enjoy sport dancing very quickly after that and soon I got this appetite to become the best I could."

Then how did the two future champions meet? Apparently, Soo-mi took the first step. "My former partner wanted to rejoin his old partner, so he dumped me," she says. "My mother suggested that I should call Hyun-woo. I'd seen him in competition and I knew he was good and I guess my mother thought we would make a good team."

Hyun-woo also had broken up with his partner at the time. "My old partner and I didn't go along too well," he says.

Ms. Kwon was reluctant to pair up the two. She told Hyun-woo to wait for another partner. "Soo-mi was too small," says Ms. Kwon. "As you can see Hyun-woo is tall and he is still growing, whereas Soo-mi may have stopped growing." But finally Ms. Kwon gave in and Hyun-woo and Soo-mi started to dance together.

"They are doing much better than I had expected," Ms. Kwon says. "Having a good partnership involves more than dancing skills. Partners should get along and understand and respect each other. The only way to keep a partnership going smoothly is to keep each dancer from critiquing the other."

Though Hyun-woo and Soo-mi have ups and downs from time to time, they have always looked after each other. They don't date -- each other or anyone. They're good friends, though. "Hyun-woo took me out for lunch on my birthday and I did the same for him," Soo-mi says. The only problem that Ms. Kwon sees in the partnership is Soo-mi's height. She is 161 centimeters (5 feet, 3 and 1/2 inches) and Hyun-woo is 178 centimeters (5 feet, 10 inches).

According to Ms. Kwon the ideal height difference between partners is 10 to 15 centimeters.

"She's bright and she's a good dancer, but, well, she's not growing."

In an attempt to aid her growth, Soo-mi is taking hormone pills.

"I wish Soo-mi was tall, but I have great expectations that she will grow soon," says Hyun-woo. "She's still young and has lots of potential."



by Lee Ho-jeong
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